British Columbia

Frustrated with theft, drug use, Commercial Drive businesses raise concerns over homeless shelter

Some business owners on Commercial Drive in Vancouver say crime has increased since a temporary homeless shelter opened in 2015. They want the city to do something about it.

But management says shelter residents aren't responsible for perceived increase in crime

Mohinder Singh Khunkhun, who lives in the shelter at Commercial and 1st Avenue in East Vancouver, says crime like theft would be worse on The Drive if the shelter wasn't there. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

There's a dry patch of brown dirt in front of the shelter that Mohinder Singh Khunkhun calls home.

With some rain, he hopes the seeds he planted recently will sprout and make the brick building seem more appealing to the people who want it gone. 

The homeless shelter at Commercial Drive and 1st Avenue has been open since 2015. Some business owners in the area say theft, vandalism and drug use has increased ever since and the city isn't doing enough about it.

Khunkhun has heard the complaints, but he says the problems would exist even if the shelter wasn't there. 

And without the shelter, he'd be back on the street.

"Places like this serve a very good need and they're not the problem for people stealing from someone's stores. Those people are going to do that anyways," he said.

"The problem would be worse if it wasn't for the shelter, because they'd be stealing more."

Commercial Drive business owners say problems have arisen since this temporary shelter opened on 1st Avenue in 2015. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'It's frustrating'

The City of Vancouver has partnered with B.C. Housing since 2009 to offer more than 900 year-round shelter beds. The province provided funding to keep almost 240 beds in these shelters available until March 2020.

The Commercial Drive shelter has 40 beds and is managed by the non-profit Community Builders.

It's a temporary shelter and it's low-barrier. This means couples and pets are welcome, as well as personal belongings. 

Darcey Houser worries low-barrier shelters enable drug use. He has owned a 24-hour supermarket across from the shelter for 21 years and says he's noticed more aggression toward staff, more theft and garbage left around since the shelter opened.

He feels the shelter is not acknowledging the problem.

"It's frustrating to deal with those issues," he said. "Since day one we've been asking them to rethink the low barrier ... and that's just kind of fallen on deaf ears."

Just down the street, Federico Fuoco says he also feels the neighbourhood has faced more problems since the shelter opened.

People don't feel as comfortable coming to The Drive to visit his restaurant, Federico's Supper Club, he said.

"I've lived and worked here all my life and I've never seen it this bad. You just walk down you see people sleeping everywhere, people urinating, defecating, you see needles all over the place," he said. 

"I've never seen it this bad."

Nick Pogor, executive director for the Commercial Drive Business Society, says he supports shelters and understands why they're needed. But he wants more support in place for the businesses he feels have been impacted negatively because of it.

"We want to see more resources and more funding for the neighbourhood and the surrounding retail district," he said. 

Nick Pogor, executive director for the Commercial Drive Business Society, says shelters are needed, but also wants support for businesses affected by them. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Shelter residents not responsible, manager says 

The Vancouver Police Department did not immediately provide data on crime in the Commercial Drive area, but said in an email that there has not been an increase in the number of calls to the nearby Super Valu grocery store.

In an email, the City of Vancouver said it is aware of concerns surrounding the shelter, but says it has received few complaints to 311.

However, the shelter's lease expires at the end of June and the city is considering relocating it.

Julie Roberts, executive director of Community Builders, says the organization has met with business owners and is aware of their concerns.

Since the non-profit took over the shelter from Raincity Housing last month, she said none of the issues raised have been explicitly tied to shelter residents.

She sympathizes with business owners. But issues of homelessness and addiction are complex, she says, and the shelter opened in response to the problem. 

"We're doing our best to be good neighbours to the community, understanding that this is a really challenging area to run a business when there is a very large homeless population that seems to have become transient in this area, but  aren't necessarily connected to our shelter," she said. 

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